The golden age of horror: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Rob: Maybe everyone’s already dead. The checkout clerks at the supermarket with their pale complexions and vacant stares. The commuters at the bus stop staring drearily into their mobile phones. The shuffling hipsters, car washers, football kids, and bums. Everyone’s walking around like, well…zombies.

After the jump, don’t say that!

Rob: It’s hard to believe Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead just turned ten years old. I hadn’t seen it since 2004 but it holds up brilliantly. The movie’s not scary in the slightest but it is incredibly clever and satisfying on a number of levels. Mostly I love how Shaun’s emotional troubles with his girlfriend, best friend, and stepdad take the forefront while the zombie apocalypse provides the stage for all that drama to play out. The movie is also densely packed with witty dialogue, sly camera gags, sharp editing, great sound design, a killer soundtrack, zombie movie references, even video games. Can we can die happy now, Chris?

Chris: Damn straight we can! The creative forces behind Shaun of the Dead know things. They know zombie culture and history, but more importantly, they know the audience who appreciate those things. They know those audiences tend to obsessive fandom and nerd rage over things like improper treatment of limited edition 12″ singles.

Rob: They also know that you absolutely throw that Batman soundtrack. The backyard record crate scene won me over hard the first time I saw this movie (“‘Second Coming?'” “I liked it!”) but this time what got me was the ludicrous zombie whaling scene at the Winchester with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” blaring on the jukebox. What an inspired bit of over-the-top silliness that is.

Chris: What makes Shaun of the Dead perk (and why it fits our list) is that for everything else it does, this is most certainly a zombie flick. By the second half of the movie the lives our protagonists are clearly in danger from the living dead, and in fact we see them killed, one by one. That’s the zombie movie blueprint, right there. The group is confronted with the need to kill beloved family members (or at least leave one of them in the Jag until he can figure out the child locks), another required element of the genre. And gore? Holy smokes. When poor Daffs becomes zombie chow, that’s about as graphic (if hilariously, wondrously excessive) as you can get.

Rob: I know, right?! Intestines criss-crossing all four corners of the frame, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I also love Bill Nighy’s scene as he lays bleeding out in the car. His performance here is great with all his sudden earnestness and step-fatherly regret.

Chris Every time I watch that scene, I can’t help but marvel at how realistically they depicted poor Phillip’s wounds. There’s something ghastly about the way the blood keeps pooling in the cloth he holds to his neck. There’s humor, gore, and as you mention, some wonderful pathos too.

Rob: And even more gut-wrenching, Shaun has to kill his mom too! But not before Ed can shout “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” (There are more horror buff Easter eggs in this movie than you can count. Fulci Restaurant. Landis Supermarket. It goes on and on.) But you’re right, I love how Wright and Pegg get away with making a gruesome zombie flick while spoofing the genre at the same time. It’s pretty astonishing to see all the background neighborhood characters introduced early in the film come back as zombies. And how about that repeated tracking shot of Shaun walking to the corner shop and back?

Chris: The corner shop scene (I loved the big bloody handprint on the glass door; that’s the kind of inspired little detail that makes the movie so winning) is part of the breezy tone of Shaun of the Dead’s first half. Even the zombies are played for slapstick laughs rather than imminent threat. (As Shaun puts it, “They’re not all that.”) On first viewing, while I was laughing at this section, I also was a bit worried. What if all they did in Shaun of the Dead was to throw Dire Straits albums at zombies? Funny, yes, but to a point. I worried it might turn into a comedy sketch gone on too long.


Chris: That’s not what the creative team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have planned, though. With subtlety and no small amount of craftsmanship, they use the light and comedic section that opens the movie to establish complex characters and their relationships with one another, as Rob describes. When things start to go pear-shaped in the second half of the film, none of the character actions–heroic, cowardly, clumsy, and sometimes all those at once–feel unnatural or serving as some deus ex machina to move the plot forward.

Rob: All Shaun ever really needed to prove his worth as a boyfriend, a son, and, damn it, a MAN was a little zombie apocalypse! Good thing it arrived just when he needed it most. By the way, one of my favorite things from this viewing was watching Shaun’s obliviousness to the first act warning signs happening literally all around him. Absolutely genius.

Chris: I think the movie transitions between its two states quite gradually and effectively as well. Maybe it starts with the horrific wound Phillip suffers getting to the Jaguar, but then there’s still a gloriously droll interlude that includes Shaun’s gang running into Yvonne’s. That’s followed by Di teaching the group how to act like the zombies gathering in front of The Winchester, who are still rather shambly and benign at this point. Perhaps it’s when Shaun goes to check the circuit breaker box things finally transition to full zombie siege mode and all that entails. Or entrails, as it happens.

Rob: That pun is gutsy. The scene where they imitate zombies to get to The Winchester struck me as maybe too easy or convenient but on the 1-10 scale of how much I cared, I’d give it a strong “Didn’t.” But I love that absurd moment where they cross paths with their alternate universe doppelgangers.

Chris: Everyone pausing to greet one another as they go past is the kind of lovely comedic touch this movie has. One needn’t be much more than a nodding anglophile to get that joke, or to find it funny. Wright and Pegg trust their audience will get it, and we do. There’s obviously a great deal of similar socio-political commentary strewn about here. It’s almost expected in the genre now, since Romero took his zombies into a shopping mall in the 1970s. What works for Shaun of the Dead is that even while it queues up its own observations on the social condition, it’s also nodding and winking at us. You could complain that the bits in the opening credits that Rob mentioned or seeing Shaun on the bus commuting from work are a bit too obvious, but it has the dint of intentional self-parody to me. A bit meta in the final reckoning, but it feels like we’re being let in on the joke.

Rob: For those who may not know, Shaun of the Dead is the first of three films loosely known as the Cornetto trilogy, after the snack food ice cream cone Shaun buys for Ed. The second film, Hot Fuzz, was funny enough but my favorite by far is The World’s End, cinema’s first and finest science fiction pub crawl. After binging on The World’s End five or six times last year, I can’t help seeing Shaun as one giant warmup act for that film. It deals in the same kind of character-based comedy and heart with a strong layer of genre laid on top, but where Shaun deals in constant homage, The World’s End feels unique and wildly inventive. I think it also does a better job of organically weaving the characters’ inner lives and the outrageous adventure into a satisfying whole. Plus It has 12 times as many pubs!

Chris: While I agree with your point this movie being Wright and Pegg’s training ground for the next two films in that group, for my personal tastes Hot Fuzz and World’s End missed some of this original spark. If Shaun of the Dead is a bit of a clumsy film at times, the enthusiastic, gleeful audience service makes it my favorite film in this collaboration.

(Shaun of the Dead is available to rent or purchase in digital formats from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)